Restored: Italy's lost treasures

A historic climb-down by Los Angeles's Getty Museum may transform the world of art collecting. By Andrew Gumbel and Peter Popham
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The Independent US

Anyone who visits the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, the great faux-Roman summer house built for a famously eccentric oil billionaire on the shores of the Pacific, can't help but notice the imposing limestone statue of Aphrodite that forms the centrepiece of a ground-floor room called Gods and Goddesses.

The 2.3-metre piece - like so much in Hollywood, just a little larger than life - is the pride of the museum. Dating to the 5th century BC, it is frequently described as the greatest Greek statue in the United States. But it is not going to stay that way for much longer.

Thanks to a deal just cut between the Getty curators and the Italian government, a deal preceded by two years of scandal, criminal prosecutions and extraordinary diplomatic wrangling, Aphrodite will be one of 40 prestigious pieces heading back to the old continent. The Italians have claimed all along that Aphrodite was stolen - first from the Sicilian archeological site of Morgantina, repository of countless Greek art treasures, many now looted, and then by means of a circuitous route of antiquities dealers and middlemen operating in the shadows of the international art trade.

The Getty made no admission of wrongdoing in the text of the agreement - reached just hours before a 31 July deadline imposed by the Italians - but the deal was unmistakably a huge climbdown for an institution desperate to rid itself of the stench of criminality and scandal and establish a new reputation as a benevolent, if still extraordinarily rich and powerful, force in the international art market.

The Italians had originally asked for the return of 46 pieces, although they let it be known they had documentation suggesting that as many as 400 artworks were of suspect origin. According to internal Getty documents leaked to The Los Angeles Times two years ago, the Getty's own lawyers identified 82 pieces, including 54 classified as masterpieces, that were of questionable origin and risked being investigated.

A first attempt at an agreement took place in November, when the Getty unilaterally offered up 26 pieces to the Italian government. The museum clearly hoped this would be enough to placate the Italians, but it was not, and negotiations broke down shortly afterwards. Culture ministry lawyers described the 26 pieces not as a concession by the Getty but a seizure - "part of our legal process", according to a lawyer, Maurizio Fiorilli.

Francesco Rutelli, Italy's Culture Minister, who knows a thing or two about stolen art, having spent years as the mayor of Rome, said he would not back down. He threatened to take out "cultural sanctions" against the Getty - essentially, refusing to lend the museum anything or cooperate in any way - if the museum did not cough up some more of its treasures.

The Italians had an extra weapon in their armoury in the form of Marion True, the former curator of antiquities at the Getty who has been on trial in Rome for the past several months on charges of receiving stolen artworks. She recommended purchase of 18 of the 40 pieces now being returned. For good measure, just to turn the screws a little tighter, the Italians also slapped Ms True with a civil suit.

The Getty railed and yelped and complained, but in the end, with emails and faxes flying right up to the deadline, the museum's management essentially folded. This, a triumphant Mr Rutelli told a news conference in Rome, was "a victory for cultural diplomacy and of shared ethical values... a historic agreement that creates an irreversible precedent.

"At the same time the noose around the art traffickers grows ever tighter."

Michael Brand, the Getty's museum director, sounded distinctly rueful about what he was about to lose when he made his own public statement. "It will change the status [of the museum]," he said. "We're losing great masterpieces. In other cases we're losing smaller, less aesthetically important items, but which might be a linchpin of a particular display."

Aside from Aphrodite, perhaps the most prominently displayed piece destined for shipment to Italy is a striking painted sculpture called Griffons Attacking a Fallen Doe, which sits directly outside the lifts on the first floor of the Getty Villa. Another major work is a statue of Apollo, which graces a room called the Basilica.

The Getty did manage to keep at least a little of its honour intact in the agreement, and wrested some important concessions of its own. Aphrodite will be going back to Italy, but not before 2010. Another signature piece, a sculpture officially called Victorious Youth but more widely known as the Getty Bronze, will remain off the negotiating table - and on display at the Getty Villa - while the Italian government delves further into an investigation into its provenance.

Perhaps most significantly, the Italians and the Getty have agreed to a new, heightened level of co-operation, enabling them to borrow each others' artworks, on a short- and long-term basis, far more liberally than in the past. This benefits the Getty primarily, since the museum will have some significant holes to fill in its floor collections. But it also suggests a new international understanding that great art should be made freely available to the widest possible audience, regardless of nationality or geographical location.

The agreement also contains good news for Ms True. She is alternately seen as an unlikely object of personal corruption - she is a Harvard-trained curator with a no-nonsense manner that does not, outwardly, suggest any sleaziness - or a victim of the institutional politics pitting Italy's desire to lose its reputation as a giant sieve from which great art all too easily seeps against the Getty's desire to consolidate its reputation as the best repository of antiquities in the New World. The Italians have agreed to drop the civil suit against her, and the expectation is that the criminal case will come to a quiet conclusion in the next two or three months.

Sharon Waxman, a New York Times reporter who is writing about a book about the international art market, reported on her blog yesterday that prosecutors in the case hope to negotiate a plea agreement whereby Ms True would receive a sentence of two to three years in prison. The way the Italian justice system works, it is unlikely she will have to serve any time.

In some ways, the Italian deal with the Getty is just another stepping stone in its 20-year campaign to claim back some of its looted treasures. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return 21 objects and the Boston Museum of Fine Art agreed to return 13.

But the Getty is easily the biggest catch in the Italian fishing expedition. The museum has only been a major player in the international art market for the past 25 years, but the huge endowment it received thanks to the Getty family's oil money enabled it to become singularly aggressive, and singularly powerful, at breakneck speed.

Many of the contested objects were acquired in that first frenzied decade of activity. Internal notes from the Getty - again, leaked to the LA Times - suggest the museum knew it was on shaky ground as far back as 1987. According to notes on a meeting about the Aphrodite acquisition, the chief executive of the Getty Trust at the time, Harold Williams, said: "We know it's stolen ... Are we willing to buy stolen property for some higher aim?" The Getty has since sought to portray Mr Williams' words as hypothetical.

Its staff, notably Ms True, have also tried to argue that Aphrodite may not have come from Morgantina at all.

Those arguments became ever harder to sustain, however - almost irrespective of their merit - as the Getty became embroiled in ever more excruciating forms of scandal. The British art dealer who brought Aphrodite to the Getty, Robin Symes, is now in prison. Barry Munitz, the man who steered the Getty Trust through its signature moments in recent years - the opening of the much praised Getty Center in the hills overlooking Los Angeles in 1997, and the renovation and re-opening of the Getty Villa at the beginning of last year - was pushed out after evidence emerged he had abused the trust's charitable status to live on the high at Getty expense. A US Senator, noting the reports of rented Tuscan villas, lavish yachting holidays in the Mediterranean, and the purchase of a new Porsche for Mr Munitz's private use, said memorably that the Getty Trust appeared to have spent more time watching episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous than looking after the money entrusted to them.

In an added twist, one prominent Getty Trust board member was found to have given Marion True a hush-hush loan so she could buy herself a holiday villa in Greece - this in apparent gratitude for Getty agreeing to buy the trustee's private antiquities collection for $20m (£10m).

The Getty had vowed to stick by Ms True through her criminal proceedings, but abruptly changed tack and forced her to resign. A few months later, the museum undertook a wholesale housecleaning, with a new museum director, a new Trust chief executive and a new set of policies on acquisitions and verification.

All this has been humiliating and painful, but it may do the Getty no long-term harm. Crowds still jam into the vast subterranean car park at the base of the hill where the white marble Getty Center rises above the luxury mansions of Brentwood and Beverly Hills. The waiting list to win a coveted visitor's spot at the Getty Villa in Malibu remains months long.

The Italians, meanwhile, can only hope the blow it has dealt to the world's richest art endowment will act as a deterrent to other would-be purchasers of stolen or dubious goods.

"The Italians have made the Getty case a symbol, an emblem," a former head of the Getty's Conservation Institute, Luis Monreal, told the LA Times. "If one of the major clients for antiquities not only has to withdraw from the market but return things, it will put the brakes on the illicit digging in Italy."